WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

16 Dec 2022 | Commentary

U.S.-Cuba Relations: The Old, the New and What Should Come Next

In 2022, the Biden administration finally took steps that can lay the groundwork for future movement on U.S.-Cuba relations. Since May, the Biden administration has reversed some Trump-era policies on Cuba –including resuming flights as well as facilitating family reunification and remittances– and restored engagement on select issues, particularly migration. What is yet to happen, however, is the enactment of a robust policy of engagement and the implementation of measures that can foster sustainable change in the island.  

It has been a difficult year in Cuba, with a worsening humanitarian crisis prompting mass migration, natural disasters that have further damaged Cuba’s infrastructure, repression against protesters, at least 670 people still being held in prison following the July 11, 2021 mass protests whose due process guarantees and other rights have been violated, and legal reforms that further prevent Cubans from challenging authorities and their policies.  

As Biden moves into the third year of his presidency, there are key policy changes that should be adopted to truly support people in Cuba in the short term and move closer to restoring engagement. These include: fully implementing the policy changes announced in May, expeditiously removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, robustly expanding support to Cuba’s private sector and entrepreneurs, and implementing existing policies to manage and ensure safe and orderly migration for Cubans.

Biden administration starts to roll back Trump-era policies

  1. Expansion of authorized travel

On May 15, 2022, as part of its new set of policies towards Cuba, the Biden administration authorized scheduled and charter flights between the United States and locations beyond Havana. It also reinstated group people-to-people and other categories of educational travel, as well as certain travel related to professional meetings and professional research. This change was important to facilitate family reunions and strengthen ties between the two countries. To date, American Airlines has the largest offer of flights to the island, operating 84 weekly flights to six cities. Other carriers offering weekly flights between the United States and Havana include Southwest, Jet Blue, and United Airlines, while Delta will resume flights to Havana starting in April 2023. 

What is pending?

The U.S. should fully reinstate the General License for Professional Meetings to also include public performances, clinics, workshops, competitions, and exhibitions. Providing additional legal avenues for travel to Cuba is essential to supporting private Cuban businesses, Cuban civil society, and everyday Cubans economically and it provides the opportunity for Cubans and Americans to increase professional and personal relationships.

  1. Eased restrictions on remittances

In May 2022, the Biden administration also removed the $1,000 limit on family remittances allowed per quarter per sender-receiver pair and authorized donative (non-family) money transfers. Allowing remittances to go to non-family members could expand their use for entrepreneurs and for humanitarian assistance. 

What is pending?

The administration should allow the resumption of Western Union wire services for remittances through a civilian sector remittance service provider (such as Orbit). While in mid-November the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) authorized VaCuba, a Miami-based agency, to operate with Orbit to send remittances to MLC cards (freely convertible currency) in Cuban banks, the system is problematic. Issues include the fact that not everyone, particularly marginalized communities and Afro-descendent people without relatives abroad, owns an MLC card, and once in the MLC card cash cannot be withdrawn. 

  1. Family Reunification

Also in May, the Biden administration announced it would resume the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program (CFRP)”. Under the program, which was originally established in 2007, eligible U.S. citizens were allowed to apply for their Cuban relatives to travel to the United States without waiting for their migrant visas to become available. While interviews for pending applications resumed in August, delays have been reported. 

What is pending?

Issuing invitations for new applicants who have submitted a request to USCIS to apply for the program. The Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program should be a priority as the United States moves back into compliance with the existing bilateral migration accords. 

  1. Increase support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs

The Biden administration’s plan to support the emerging Cuban private sector included facilitating access to e-commerce (access to the Internet as well as to cloud technology, application programming interfaces, e-commerce platforms, and electronic payments) and business engagement and work to expand entrepreneurs’ access to microfinance and training. While these measures are, on paper, promising, the administration has yet to deliver on implementation. The lack of specific guidelines on how they will be implemented means their full impact is difficult to assess at this time.

What is pending?

  • Easing banking restrictions by allowing bank-to-bank transactions between Cuban civilian-managed banks and U.S. banks, allowing private Cuban individuals and businesses to open bank accounts in the U.S., and reversing the prohibition of U-turn transactions (financial transactions that do not originate or end in the U.S. but pass through the U.S. financial system, usually due to the transaction calling for payment in U.S. dollars). At present, one of the biggest obstacles to expanding U.S. business linkages with the Cuban private sector is the absence of a simple, reliable payment system. Being allowed to complete transactions in U.S. dollars would also allow Cuban entrepreneurs to more productively and easily engage with foreign entities and in foreign markets.
  • Allowing U.S.-based firms to provide cloud-based services, fee-based platforms in Cuba, and e-commerce services and digital banking.
  • Authorizing financing into the private sector and establishing general licenses that allow U.S. companies and individuals to invest in the private sector in Cuba, or publicly clarify the options available today. 
  • Reinstating the five-year multiple entry non-immigrant visas. This change will help Cuban entrepreneurs build supply chains in the U.S. and reduce their incentive to emigrate.
  • Eliminating the limit on the value of gift parcels sent to Cuba under the authority of License Exception GFT (15 CFR § 740.12). The removal of this restriction would enable private entrepreneurs to more easily obtain the equipment and supplies they need to run their private businesses.
  • Supporting access to effective internet in Cuba to facilitate the free flow of information across Cuba and between the U.S. and Cuba. This should include  re-examining the 2019 Cuba Internet Task Force recommendations, including facilitating the export of telecommunications equipment and infrastructure, promoting technological literacy and digital safety education, and promoting exchange programs.

What should come next?

While the Biden administration should work to fully implement the policy changes announced in May, additional measures are needed to advance on Biden’s campaign promise to reengage with Cuba.

  1. Commit to a responsible approach to migration 

During 2022, approximately 2 percent of Cuba’s total population (nearly 233,000 people) has sought to emigrate to the United States in one of the largest waves of Cuban migration in history. In response to this dynamic, U.S. and Cuban officials met in April and November 2022 to discuss the implementation of the bilateral migration accords, which resulted in several changes to U.S. policies towards Cubans. These included the reinstatement of the CFRP program, the increase in the number of immigrant visas processed in the U.S. Embassy in Havana (starting January 2023 all immigrant visas will be processed in Havana, rather than in Georgetown, Guyana), and Cuba’s acceptance of deportation flights (although the number of flights is not clear). The exodus of people from Cuba shows no signs of slowing down. In October 2022 alone, a total of 29,872 Cuban migrants were encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This represents five times as many encounters as in October 2022.

While Cuba’s economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, and social discontent are driving migration from the island, the Biden administration can also take  some urgent steps to achieve a responsible approach to migration, including:

  • Begin processing non-immigrant visas in the U.S. Embassy in Havana for students, entrepreneurs, artists, academics, families, and others to enable meaningful travel from Cuba to the U.S. Since 2017, only a handful of visas have been processed in Havana and applicants have had to travel to U.S. embassies in third countries. 
  • Reinstate the five-year multiple entry non-immigrant visas and issue multiple-entry non-immigrant visas for the B2 and additional categories of travel such as O and P visas for cultural exchanges. 
  • Reopen the Refugee Section that administers the U.S. Refugees Admission Program in Cuba (the program is not currently accepting new applicants or processing cases).
  • Start issuing new invitations for the CFRP Program. 
  • Implement protection-sensitive migration management systems to humanely respond to Cuban migration by land and sea, including strengthening search and rescue operations at sea; ensuring access to asylum procedures; and increasing training in human rights, refugee law, and humanitarian principles for the U.S. Coast Guard and other immigration authorities.
  1. Remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list

Days before President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, the Trump administration included Cuba in the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list (SSOT, the other countries on the list are North Korea, Iran, and Syria ). Cuba, however, does not meet the statutory definition of a state sponsor of terrorism and its behavior has not changed materially since the intelligence review ordered by President Obama in 2015 concluded that Cuba no longer belonged on the list. The decision to include Cuba on the list is believed to have been made by Trump administration officials in order to internationally affect relations between the U.S. and Cuba at the onset of Biden’s presidency.   

Keeping Cuba on the list limits the ability of the U.S. government to support the Cuban people given the chilling effect it has on businesses and private individuals, both of which are crucial to promoting much needed change in the island. Cuba’s presence on the list limits private individuals from opening bank accounts abroad, the use of instruments for international payments, access to financial technology and digital banking, as well as the ability to contract online servers and services. In turn, even if direct foreign trade expands, Cuban private companies will find restrictions on the purchase of products manufactured in the U.S. and even goods produced in third countries that incorporate some content of inputs from the U.S.

Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list severely limits foreign investment and creates additional obstacles to delivering humanitarian aid. It also means that foreign travelers from countries included in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)–a visa waiver program for over 40 countries including European Union members states, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and South Korea–who visited Cuba in or after January 2021 are required to request a visa at the Consulate General or Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in their home country.  This requirement  will likely have negative impacts on Cuba’s tourism industry, as it may disincentivize travel to Cuba, and numerous EU countries, such as Spain, Germany, France, and Italy, are in the top eight nationalities who visit the island.

  1. Re-engage diplomatically with Cuba

Before President Trump halted diplomatic relations with Cuba, both countries were engaged in a wide range of dialogues on more than a dozen issues related to the 22 bilateral agreements signed between 2015 and 2017, most of which are still in effect but have not been implemented. 

Since taking office, President Biden has resumed talks on migration and provided select technical assistance as well as humanitarian aid to Cuba. The administration should, however, restart dialogues on a number of other issues of shared interest, including environmental protection, the climate emergency and agriculture. 

Continuing to develop bilateral relations will also open further avenues for the U.S. to raise issues related to Cuba’s human rights record – including in particular, the lack of freedom of expression and association in the country and widespread repression against those who oppose the Cuban authorities. A new policy of engagement should emphasize human rights issues, making a priority resuming the Human Rights Dialogue (started in March 2015 under the Obama Administration) and the release of political prisoners.

*María José Espinosa is the Executive Director at the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), where she leads advocacy, program, and communication strategies that drive transformative action in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean on issues including U.S.-Cuba relations, regional migration, LGBTQ+ and women rights, and protections for refugees and migrants.

*Natalie Omodt is a Program Associate at CDA. Natalie graduated magna cum laude from Elon University in 2020 with a BA in International Studies and Political Science and minors in Latin American Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Spanish.